Academic researchers say the fossil fuel industry engages in 'discourses of delay' to divert attention away from the crisis.
By Amy Westervelt
ExxonMobil has been touting its commitment to "reducing carbon emissions with innovative energy solutions". Chevron would like to remind you it is keeping the lights on during this dark time. BP is going #NetZero, but is also very proud of the "digital innovations" on its new, enormous oil drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile Shell insists it really supports women in traditionally male-dominated jobs.
A casual social media user might get the impression the fossil fuel industry views itself as a social justice warrior, fighting on behalf of the poor, the marginalized, and women – at least based on its marketing material in recent years.
These campaigns fall into what a handful of sociologists and economists call "discourses of delay". While oil and gas companies have a long track record of denying climate change, even after their own scientists repeatedly warned of the harm caused by burning fossil fuels, now the industry's messaging is far more subtle and in many ways more effective than outright climate science denial.
By downplaying the urgency of the climate crisis, the industry has new tools to delay efforts to curb fossil fuel emissions. And worse yet: even industry critics haven't fully caught up to this new approach.
"If you just focus on climate denial, then all of this other stuff is missed," explains Robert Brulle, an environmental sociologist and visiting professor at Brown University.
Brulle, who published a peer-reviewed study in 2019 that analyzed major oil corporations' advertising spending over a 30-year period, says the "lion's share" of ad dollars were directed not toward denial, or even toward the industry's products, but toward pro-fossil fuel propaganda – campaigns that remind people over and over again about all the great things oil companies do, how dependent we are on fossil fuels, and how integral the industry is to society.
"They're spending probably five or 10 times more on all this corporate promotion advertising," he says. "And yet the climate movement seems to only focus on the science denial part."
ExxonMobil has used Twitter campaigns to emphasize progress on addressing climate change while also downplaying the urgency of the crisis. Source: Twitter
Oil companies stopped pushing overt climate denial more than a decade ago. And while conspiracy theories claiming climate change is a hoax may surface occasionally, they are no longer an effective strategy.
Instead, the fossil fuel industry, utilities and the various trade groups, politicians and think tanks that carry water for both, have pivoted to messages that acknowledge the problem, but downplay its severity and the urgency for solutions. Instead companies are overstating the industry's progress toward addressing climate change.
In a paper published in the journal Global Sustainability last July, economist William Lamb and nearly a dozen co-authors catalogued the most common messaging from those who would prefer to see inaction on climate for as long as possible. According to Lamb's team, the industry's "discourses of delay" fall into four buckets: redirect responsibility (consumers are also to blame for fossil fuel emissions), push non-transformative solutions (disruptive change is not necessary), emphasize the downside of action (change will be disruptive), and surrender (it's not possible to mitigate climate change).
"This was a paper that was born on Twitter, funnily enough," Lamb says. Lamb and collaborators Giulio Mattoli and Julia Steinberger began compiling the fossil fuel messaging they saw repeatedly on social media. Then they asked other academics from various fields to add what they were seeing too, and patterns soon emerged.
Lamb says they explicitly left denial out of the equation. "What we tried to do was really examine delay as something distinct," he says. "From our view, delay had not received the kind of attention it deserves."
Of all the messaging geared toward delaying action on climate, or assurances that the fossil fuel industry has a grip on possible solutions, Lamb and other authors agreed that one theme was far more prevalent than the rest: "the social justice argument."
This strategy generally takes one of two forms: either warnings that a transition away from fossil fuels will adversely impact poor and marginalized communities, or claims that oil and gas companies are aligned with those communities. Researchers call this practice "wokewashing."
Twitter ads, like this video by ExxonMobil, reflect popular messaging around social justice, implying that the company is aligned with diverse communities. Researchers call this practice 'wokewashing'. Composite: Twitter
An email Chevron's PR firm CRC Advisors sent to journalists last year is a perfect example. It urged journalists to look at how green groups were "claiming solidarity" with Black Lives Matter while "backing policies which would hurt minority communities". Chevron later denied that it had anything to do with this email, although it regularly hires CRC and the bottom of the email in question read: "If you would rather not receive future communications from Chevron, let us know by clicking here."
Another common industry talking point argues a transition away from fossil fuels will be unavoidably bad for impoverished communities. The argument is based on the assumption that these communities value fossil fuel energy more than concerns about all of its attendant problems (air and water pollution, in addition to climate change), and that there is no way to provide poor communities or countries with affordable renewable energy.
Chevron also claimed solidarity with Black Lives Matter last year, although it is also responsible for polluting the Black-majority city it's headquartered in: Richmond, California, where Chevron also pays for a larger-than-average police force. Meanwhile the American Petroleum Institute, Big Oil's largest trade group and lobbyist, funds diversity in stem programs, but it also declines to acknowledge the disproportionate impacts on communities of color.
Discourses of delay don't just show up in advertising and marketing campaigns, but in policy conversations too.
"We've gone through thousands of pieces of testimony on climate and clean energy bills at the state level, and all of the industry arguments against this sort of legislation included these messages," says J Timmons Roberts, professor of environment and sociology at Brown University, and a co-author on the "discourses of delay" paper.
In a recently published study focused on delay tactics in Massachusetts, for example, Roberts and his co-authors catalogued how fossil fuel interest groups and utility companies in particular used discourses of delay to try to defeat clean energy legislation. Another recent study found similar campaigns against clean energy and climate bills in Connecticut. "The social justice argument is the one we're seeing used the most," he says.
Lamb sees the same thing happening in Europe. "Often you do see those arguments come from right of center politicians, which suggests hypocrisy in a way because they're not so interested in the social dimension on parallel issues of social justice like education policy or financial policy."
While the social justice argument stands out as a favorite at the moment, Lamb says the others are in regular rotation too, from focusing on what individual consumers should be doing to reduce their own carbon footprints to promoting the ideas that technology will save us and that fossil fuels are a necessary part of the solution.
"These things are effective, they work," Roberts says. "So what we need is inoculation – people need a sort of field guide to these arguments so they're not just duped."
Amy Westervelt is an award-winning climate journalist and the founder and executive producer of the Critical Frequency podcast network, which puts out the climate podcasts Drilled, Hot Take, Inherited, and more.
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By Sushma Subramanian
Baltimore is suing major oil and gas companies for spurring the climate crisis and the rising temperatures that have an outsized impact on low-income, urban areas
For years, an elderly man stood as a regular fixture around his East Baltimore neighborhood for the way he would wander the streets in the summer, trying to stay outside his sweltering home until nightfall.
This man, who suffers from dementia, lived in a row house that shared side walls with its neighboring homes. With windows only in the front and back, there was little air flow, which trapped the heat inside. It's not unusual for the upper floors in such homes to be several degrees hotter than the temperature outdoors.
During a nearly two-week heat wave that swept through the city in July 2019, Cynthia Brooks, executive director of the Bea Gaddy Family Center, a local non-profit that provides food and other services for the poor and homeless, noticed she hadn't seen the man for a while. Finally, on one of the "code red" days – when the forecasted heat index is expected to be at 105F (40.56C) or higher – he stumbled out of his house, looking disoriented. No one knows how long he had been sitting inside, alone, without a fan or air conditioning.
This man had no one to call – no family was around, and alerting emergency responders could have led to a hefty medical bill. Brooks dropped everything and took him to nearby Johns Hopkins hospital, where he was diagnosed with heatstroke and given treatment. After that incident, Brooks became his legal custodian. He currently lives in a senior home nearby, and she makes his treatment decisions.
Blocks of row houses and young trees contribute to the heat issues in Baltimore. Greg Kahn / The Guardian
This man represents the population in Baltimore most likely to face the personal impacts of the climate crisis. Around the country, global heating is increasing the frequency, intensity and duration of summer heat waves. The recent triple-digit temperatures across the Pacific north-west, where air conditioning in homes isn't common, highlight the real-world hardships caused by extreme heat exposure and how the elderly and homeless suffer disproportionately from physical discomfort and worse health outcomes.
Mitigating such public health issues, along with damage to infrastructure and losses in tourism revenue and agriculture, are among the major costs of climate change in Baltimore. Now, the city is looking for retribution.
In a recent lawsuit, the city argues that fossil fuel companies should be held responsible for such costs because they knowingly contributed to the climate crisis. Baltimore's case is one of more than 20 suits brought by a range of other cities, states and counties that are suing the major oil conglomerates for driving the climate crisis and offloading the financial burden onto the American public.
The legal strategy is a novel approach toward addressing the climate crisis, and some legal experts believe Baltimore's suit may be the bellwether for similar efforts across the country. The case has caught the attention of the US supreme court, which in May ruled in favor of the oil companies over a legal technicality. While the ruling gives the fossil fuel industry the green light to pursue arguing their case in federal court, where they believe they will face better odds than in state court, the legal process is expected to reveal new information on what the industry knew of the environmental destruction brought by climate change.
The Baltimore case, in particular, highlights the ways that densely-populated urban areas bear the burdens of extreme weather patterns. Marginalized communities are the most likely to face the effects.
Stretches of hot weather in the city have become more frequent over the past 40 years. According to the National Weather Service, 10 of the 12 periods in Baltimore's history that saw 20 or more days of 90-degree temperatures or higher have occurred since 1980. Last summer, 16 people died for heat-related reasons, three of whom were suspected or presumed homeless, according to statistics from the Baltimore city health department. On one day in 2020, there were more than 90 emergency department complaints due to heat-related illness, including hyperthermia, dehydration and sunburn.
"Go to Johns Hopkins at any given time in the summer and people are complaining about heat exhaustion. People are getting picked up on the side of the street because they pass out," Brooks says. "If you are homeless, you are subjected to all layers of heat."
Though we typically think of rising tides affecting coastal communities, extreme weather patterns and wildfires out west as pressure points brought by climate change, heat islands in urban areas represent the very real, but often invisible, climate change threats that harm low-income communities in particular. Dark-colored roads and rooftops absorb heat from the sun and release it back into the air, increasing temperatures in their vicinity, an effect that's more pronounced in the evenings. Even within a city, neighborhoods with less vegetation feel hotter.
East Baltimore, particularly the area north of Patterson Park, is considered the city's most extreme urban heat island, according to a 2018 study by researchers at Portland State University in Oregon and the Science Museum of Virginia. Scientists say temperatures in such pockets can be as much as 10 to 20 degrees hotter than other parts of the city due to a high concentration of pavement and a lack of shade from trees.
Central air conditioning is rare in the neighborhood, and often the wiring in the buildings is so old that a window unit could short circuit. For those able to install an AC unit, the energy required to run it is often too expensive for someone on a fixed income. Fans help somewhat, but often they end up just circulating the hot air.
Combined with heat-trapping row houses, illness caused by extreme heat is a major risk. Climate change has also been shown to lengthen allergy season and worsen air quality, and heat can worsen chronic health conditions, such as various respiratory, cerebral and cardiovascular diseases.
The city in recent years has worked to increase its number of cooling centers – air-conditioned public spaces that are a common strategy in many cities. Last year, because the Covid-19 pandemic prevented people from gathering in closed spaces, the city increased its efforts to keep people cooler while at home. The department of health purchased about 20,000 box fans to distribute to senior citizens. In addition, the Maryland Food Bank provided water to be distributed at community resiliency hubs throughout the city.
Tehma Smith Wilson, chief operating officer of The Door, a community resiliency hub that helped distribute the fans and water to residents living in the hottest part of the city, said it was an enormously popular program. The long walks to such facilities, however, can deter people from taking advantage of them. Many seniors who stand to benefit from the city's services often struggle with mobility. And because people remained socially distanced during the pandemic, they had to line up outside, in areas without much green space. The water provided much-needed relief and the fans disappeared quickly, but there were still logistical challenges getting them to those who needed them most.
"You might be able to walk there, but then are you capable of carrying it two or three blocks away?" said Wilson.
Tehma Smith Wilson of The Door, a resiliancy hub in Baltimore distributes food and water to residents on June 24, 2021. Greg Kahn / The Guardian
Other longer-term efforts to help people deal with the heat include weatherizing housing by plugging leaks, adding insulation and installing air conditioning. Several community organizations have received energy efficiency upgrades to accommodate solar power and battery storage so they can continue to serve their communities if there is a power outage. Backup power services are unequally distributed in cities.
The city has also amped up efforts in recent years to plant trees and add more city-maintained green spaces, with a particular focus on neighborhoods that lack shade, such as East and West Baltimore. As of 2015, the city had 28% tree canopy coverage. In East Baltimore, many neighborhoods by comparison had tree canopy of about 10%, according to a University of Maryland Howard Center for Investigative Journalism analysis of data gathered by researchers at the US Forest Service and the University of Vermont Spatial Analysis Lab. City officials hope that by 2030, Baltimore will reach 40% tree coverage.
Roxane Prettyman, community outreach director for First Mount Calvary Baptist church in Sandtown-Winchester, another community resiliency hub in West Baltimore, says that people in the area often have to walk long distances to a grocery or a convenience store, meaning they have to stay outside longer in extreme weather without shade.
In addition to adding more green spaces, she believes more retail options are also necessary. Schools also need air conditioning. On code red days, students from schools without cooling systems are sent back to homes that are also too hot. A recent study showed that in years when there are more hot days, students do worse on standardized tests – a longer-term impact of extreme weather.
In the meantime, residents of the hottest areas have to think creatively about how to deal with the heat. Irwin Wilson, 64, a volunteer at The Door, says he tries to stay outside. While 137-acre Patterson Park is a few blocks away from his home, the location is inconvenient. Instead he relies on small spots of shade wherever he can find them, but the options are limited. Though the city has made efforts to plant trees, many of them are still young and don't provide significant cover. He chases every couple feet of shade he can find, even if it's from a single branch.
Karen Lewis now covers the bathroom skylight to keep the sun rays from roasting the upper floors of her Baltimore home. Greg Kahn / The Guardian
"You find some shade, and if you stay still long enough you find a breeze," said Wilson, 64.
In Karen Lewis' rowhouse in East Baltimore, she has to be innovative to stay cool in the summers. She covers up the skylight in her upstairs bathroom so sunlight gets blocked. She has an air conditioner, but she uses it sparingly due to the cost to move some cool air in. Mostly, she uses a series of strategically-placed fans.
But in spite of these adaptations, Lewis, 61, who does odd jobs, including making jewelry and sometimes providing cleaning and assisted living services, says the heat often feels so thick that it gives her trouble breathing.
"It's very hot," said Lewis. "If I put on a fan, it's still very, very humid in there."
In addition to the heat, Baltimore is also experiencing the lasting effects of climate change through extreme storms. The city has seen an increase in nuisance flooding, or flooding that is caused by tidal fluctuations rather than rainstorms, according to Aubrey Germ, the climate and resilience planner for Baltimore's office of sustainability.
Extreme weather events in the Atlantic Ocean sometimes cause rising shorelines in Baltimore. The waterfront, which the city recently revitalized and attracts millions of visitors each year, is particularly vulnerable to flooding, and is a major factor in the city's lawsuit.
Baltimore consists of five watersheds, which also makes it prone to flash flooding. There has also been an increase in microbursts, rainstorms that linger over certain areas of the city for longer periods rather than moving through, which overwhelms the storm water system. Several intersections, particularly in south-east and north-east Baltimore, have had repeated flooding that has damaged cars, businesses and homes.
In the short term, the city has become more vigilant about regularly cleaning storm drains. But in the long term, infrastructure improvements are needed. City workers cannot comment on the costs of projects associated with the climate crisis as the city's lawsuit is ongoing.
Residents say that such extreme weather events take a long financial and psychological toll. In 2018, Baltimore received a so-called 1,000-year rainstorm, meaning there is 1/10 of 1% of a chance in any year for a storm like that to hit. This was just two years after a similar deluge. Almost 150 homes near a portion of Frederick Avenue, in south-west Baltimore, were flooded. Most of the damage was to basements, but some people's first floors were also affected. They had to fix structural damage and buy new hot water heaters. In the months following the 2018 event, two other flash floods sloshed through, destroying their progress. Only some were able to cover these costs through insurance.
"That numerical anomaly is what really traumatizes a lot of the residents, many of whom are senior citizens," says Michael S Martin, lead pastor at Stillmeadow Community Fellowship, another resiliency hub. "Even today, if it gets cloudy, we will get a few calls from individuals worried about what they should do."
Martin says that while much of the media's focus in the 2018 storm was on damage to commercial buildings in nearby Ellicott City, a suburb outside of the city and former mill town that is known for its historic charm, more homes were damaged in the mostly Black area near Frederick Avenue. Similarly, the efforts to solve infrastructure problems appear, to him, to be moving faster there than in his neighborhood. In the summers, residents are doubly affected by extreme heat.
"The city offering water and fans to residents is conscientious and thoughtful," he says. "We're doing what we can at a small level, but what's our overall national response to our cities getting hotter?"
Sushma Subramanian is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Mary Washington and author of "How to Feel: The Science and Meaning of Touch."
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Through net metering programs, homeowners who have installed solar energy systems can get utility credits for any electricity their panels generate during the day that isn't used to power home systems. These credits can be "cashed in" to offset the cost of any grid electricity used at night.
Where net metering is available, solar panels have a shorter payback period and yield a higher return on investment. Without this benefit, you only save on power bills when using solar energy directly, and surplus generation is lost unless you store it in a solar battery. However, net metering gives you the option of selling any excess electricity that is not consumed within your home.
Generally, you will see more home solar systems in places with favorable net metering laws. With this benefit, going solar becomes an attractive investment even for properties with minimal daytime consumption. Homeowners can turn their roofs into miniature power plants during the day, and that generation is subtracted from their nighttime consumption.
What Is Net Metering?
Net metering is a billing arrangement in which surplus energy production from solar panels is tracked by your electricity provider and subtracted from your monthly utility bill. When your solar power system produces more kilowatt-hours of electricity than your home is consuming, the excess generation is fed back into the grid.
For homeowners with solar panels, the benefits of net metering include higher monthly savings and a shorter payback period. Utility companies also benefit, since the excess solar electricity can be supplied to other buildings on the same electric grid.
If a power grid relies on fossil fuels, net metering also increases the environmental benefits of solar power. Even if a building does not have an adequate area for rooftop solar panels, it can reduce its emissions by using the surplus clean energy from other properties.
How Net Metering Works
There are two general ways net metering programs work:
- The surplus energy produced by your solar panels is measured by your utility company, and a credit is posted to your account that can be applied to future power bills.
- The surplus energy produced by your solar panels is measured by your home's electricity meter. Modern power meters can measure electricity flow in both directions, so they tick up when you pull from the grid at night and count down when your solar panels are producing an excess amount of electricity.
In either scenario, at the end of the billing period, you will only pay for your net consumption — the difference between total consumption and generation. This is where the term "net metering" comes from.
How Does Net Metering Affect Your Utility Bill?
Net metering makes solar power systems more valuable for homeowners, as you can "sell" any extra energy production to your utility company. However, it's important to understand how charges and credits are managed:
- You can earn credits for your surplus electricity, but utility companies will not cut you a check for the power you provide. Instead, they will subtract the credits from your power bills.
- If your net metering credit during the billing period is higher than your consumption, the difference is rolled over to the next month.
- Some power companies will roll over your credit indefinitely, but many have a yearly expiration date that resets your credit balance.
With all of this in mind, it is possible to reduce your annual electricity cost to zero. You can accumulate credit with surplus generation during the sunny summer months, and use it during winter when solar generation decreases.
You will achieve the best results when your solar power system has just the right capacity to cover your annual home consumption. Oversizing your solar array is not recommended, as you will simply accumulate a large unused credit each year. In other words, you cannot overproduce and charge your power company each month.
Some power companies will let you pick the expiration date of your annual net metering credits. If you have this option, it's wise to set the date after winter has ended. This way, you can use all the renewable energy credits you accumulated during the summer.
Is Net Metering Available Near You?
Net metering offers a valuable incentive for homeowners to switch to solar power, but these types of programs are not available everywhere. Net metering laws can change depending on where you live.
In the U.S., there are mandatory net metering laws in 38 states and Washington, D.C. Most states without a mandate have power companies that voluntarily offer the benefit in their service areas. South Dakota and Tennessee are the only two states with no version of net metering or similar programs.
If net metering is available in your area, you will be credited for your surplus energy in one of two ways:
- Net metering at retail price: You get full credit for each kilowatt-hour sent to the grid. For example, if you're charged 16 cents per kWh consumed, you'll get a credit of 16 cents per kWh exported. This type of net metering is required by law in 29 states.
- Net metering at a reduced feed-in tariff: Surplus electricity sent to the grid is credited at a lower rate. For example, you may be charged 16 cents per kWh for consumption but paid 10 cents per kWh exported. Feed-in tariffs and other alternative programs are used in 17 of the states where retail-rate net metering is not mandatory.
Note: This is just a simplified example — the exact kWh retail price and solar feed-in tariff will depend on your electricity plan.
The Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE) is an excellent resource if you want to learn more about net metering and other solar power incentives in your state. You can also look for information about solar incentives by visiting the official websites of your state government and utility company.
Other Financial Incentives for Going Solar
Net metering policies are one of the most effective incentives for solar power. However, there are other financial incentives that can be combined with net metering to improve your ROI:
- The federal solar tax credit lets you claim 26% of your solar installation costs as a tax deduction. For example, if your solar installation had a cost of $10,000, you can claim $2,600 on your next tax declaration. This benefit is available everywhere in the U.S.
- State tax credits may also be available depending on where you live, and they can be claimed in addition to the federal incentive.
- Solar rebates are offered by some state governments and utility companies. These are upfront cash incentives subtracted directly from the cost of your solar PV system.
In addition to seeking out solar incentives available to you, you should compare quotes from multiple installers before signing a solar contract. This will ensure you're getting the best deal available and help you avoid overpriced offers and underpriced, low-quality installations. You can start getting quotes from top solar companies near you by filling out the 30-second form below.
Frequently Asked Questions: Solar Net Metering
Why is net metering bad?
When managed correctly, net metering is beneficial for electricity consumers and power companies. There have been cases in which power grids lack the capacity to handle large amounts of power coming from homes and businesses. However, this is an infrastructure issue, not a negative aspect of net metering itself.
In places with a high percentage of homes and businesses using solar panels, surplus generation on sunny days can saturate the grid. This can be managed by modernizing the grid to handle distributed solar power more effectively with load management and energy storage systems.
How does net metering work?
With net metering, any electricity your solar panels produce that isn't used to power your home is fed into your local power grid. Your utility company will pay you for this power production through credits that can be applied to your monthly energy bills.
Can you make money net metering?
You can reduce your power bills with net metering, using surplus solar generation to compensate for your consumption when you can't generate solar power at night and on cloudy days. However, most power companies will not pay you for surplus production once your power bill has dropped to $0. Normally, that credit will be rolled over, to be used in months where your solar panels are less productive.
On very rare occasions, you may be paid for the accumulated balance over a year. However, this benefit is offered by very few electric companies and is subject to limitations.
By Chris McGreal
After a century of wielding extraordinary economic and political power, America's petroleum giants face a reckoning for driving the greatest existential threat of our lifetimes.
An unprecedented wave of lawsuits, filed by cities and states across the US, aim to hold the oil and gas industry to account for the environmental devastation caused by fossil fuels – and covering up what they knew along the way.
Coastal cities struggling to keep rising sea levels at bay, midwestern states watching "mega-rains" destroy crops and homes, and fishing communities losing catches to warming waters, are now demanding the oil conglomerates pay damages and take urgent action to reduce further harm from burning fossil fuels.
But, even more strikingly, the nearly two dozen lawsuits are underpinned by accusations that the industry severely aggravated the environmental crisis with a decades-long campaign of lies and deceit to suppress warnings from their own scientists about the impact of fossil fuels on the climate and dupe the American public.
The environmentalist Bill McKibben once characterized the fossil fuel industry's behavior as "the most consequential cover-up in US history". And now for the first time in decades, the lawsuits chart a path toward public accountability that climate activists say has the potential to rival big tobacco's downfall after it concealed the real dangers of smoking.
"We are at an inflection point," said Daniel Farber, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley and director of the Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment.
"Things have to get worse for the oil companies," he added. "Even if they've got a pretty good chance of winning the litigation in places, the discovery of pretty clearcut wrong doing – that they knew their product was bad and they were lying to the public – really weakens the industry's ability to resist legislation and settlements."
For decades, the country's leading oil and gas companies have understood the science of climate change and the dangers posed by fossil fuels. Year after year, top executives heard it from their own scientists whose warnings were explicit and often dire.
In 1979, an Exxon study said that burning fossil fuels "will cause dramatic environmental effects" in the coming decades.
"The potential problem is great and urgent," it concluded.
But instead of heeding the evidence of the research they were funding, major oil firms worked together to bury the findings and manufacture a counter narrative to undermine the growing scientific consensus around climate science. The fossil fuel industry's campaign to create uncertainty paid off for decades by muddying public understanding of the growing dangers from global heating and stalling political action.
The urgency of the crisis is not in doubt. A draft United Nations report, leaked last week, warns that the consequences of the climate crisis, including rising seas, intense heat and ecosystem collapse, will fundamentally reshape life on Earth in the coming decades even if fossil fuel emissions are curbed.
To investigate the lengths of the oil and gas industry's deceptions – and the disastrous consequences for communities across the country – the Guardian is launching a year-long series tracking the unprecedented efforts to hold the fossil fuel industry to account.
The legal process is expected to take years. Cities in California filed the first lawsuits back in 2017, and they have been tied down by disputes over jurisdiction, with the oil companies fighting with limited success to get them moved from state to federal courts where they think the law is more favorable.
But climate activists see opportunities long before verdicts are rendered in the US. The legal process is expected to add to already damning revelations of the energy giants' closely held secrets. If history is a guide, those developments could in turn alter public opinion in favor of regulations that the oil and gas companies spent years fighting off.
A string of other recent victories for climate activists already points to a shift in the industry's power.
Last month, a Dutch court ordered Shell to cut its global carbon emissions by 45% by the end of the decade. The same day, in Houston, an activist hedge fund forced three new directors on to the board of the US's largest oil firm, ExxonMobil, to address climate issues. Investors at Chevron also voted to cut emissions from the petroleum products it sells.
Earlier this month, developers of the Keystone XL pipeline cancelled the project after more than a decade of unrelenting opposition over environmental concerns. And although a federal court last year threw out a lawsuit brought by 21 young Americans who say the US government violated their constitutional rights by exacerbating climate change, the Biden administration recently agreed to settlement talks in a symbolic gesture aimed to appease younger voters.
For all that, American lawyers say the legal reasoning behind foreign court judgments are unlikely to carry much weight in the US and domestic law is largely untested. In 2018, a federal court knocked back New York City's initial attempt to force big oil to cover the costs of the climate crisis by saying that its global nature requires a political, not legal, remedy.
Other regional lawsuits are inching their way through the courts. From Charleston, South Carolina, to Boulder, Colorado, and Maui, Hawaii, communities are seeking to force the industry to use its huge profits to pay for the damage and to oblige energy companies to treat the climate crisis for what it is – a global emergency.
Municipalities such as Imperial Beach, California – the poorest city in San Diego county with a budget less than Exxon chief executive's annual pay – faces rising waters on three sides without the necessary funding to build protective barriers. They claim oil companies created a "public nuisance" by fuelling the climate crisis. They seek to recover the cost of repairing the damage and constructing defences.
The public nuisance claim, also pursued by Honolulu, San Francisco and Rhode Island, follows a legal strategy with a record of success in other types of litigation. In 2019, Oklahoma's attorney general won compensation of nearly half a billion dollars against the pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson over its false marketing of powerful prescription painkillers on the grounds it created a public nuisance by contributing to the opioid epidemic in the state.
Other climate lawsuits, including one filed in Minnesota, allege the oil firms' campaigns of deception and denial about the climate crisis amount to fraud. Minnesota is suing Exxon, Koch Industries and an industry trade group for breaches of state law for deceptive trade practices, false advertising and consumer fraud over what the lawsuit characterises as distortions and lies about climate science.
The midwestern state, which has seen temperatures rise faster than the US and global averages, said scorching temperatures and "mega-rains" have devastated farming and flooded people out of their homes, with low-income and minority families most at risk.
Minnesota's attorney general, Keith Ellison, claims in his lawsuit that for years Exxon orchestrated a campaign to bury the evidence of environmental damage caused by burning fossil fuels "with disturbing success".
"Defendants spent millions on advertising and public relations because they understood that an accurate understanding of climate change would affect their ability to continue to earn profits by conducting business as usual," Ellison said in his lawsuit.
Farber said cases rooted in claims that the petroleum industry lied have the most promising chance of success.
"To the extent the plaintiffs can point to misconduct, like telling everybody there's no such thing as climate change when your scientists have told you the opposite, that might give the courts a greater feeling of comfort that they're not trying to take over the US energy system," he said.
Fighting the Facts
Almost all the lawsuits draw on the oil industry's own records as the foundation for claims that it covered up the growing threat to life caused by its products.
Shell, like other oil companies, had decades to prepare for those consequences after it was forewarned by its own research. In 1958, one of its executives, Charles Jones, presented a paper to the industry's trade group, the American Petroleum Institute (API), warning about increased carbon emissions from car exhaust. Other research followed through the 1960s, leading a White House advisory committee to express concern at "measurable and perhaps marked changes in climate" by 2000.
API's own reports flagged up "significant temperature changes" by the end of the twentieth century.
The largest oil company in the US, Exxon, was hearing the same from its researchers.
Year after year, Exxon scientists recorded the evidence about the dangers of burning fossil fuels. In 1978, its science adviser, James Black, warned that there was a "window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategy might become critical".
Exxon set up equipment on a supertanker, the Esso Atlantic, to monitor carbon dioxide in seawater and the air. In 1982, the company's scientists drew up a graph accurately plotting an increase in the globe's temperature to date.
"The 1980s revealed an established consensus among scientists," the Minnesota lawsuit against Exxon says. "A 1982 internal Exxon document … explicitly declares that the science was 'unanimous' and that climate change would 'bring about significant changes in the earth's climate'."
Then the monitoring on the Esso Atlantic was suddenly called off and other research downgraded.
What followed was what Naomi Oreskes, co-author of the report America Misled, called a "systematic, organised campaign by Exxon and other oil companies to sow doubt about the science and prevent meaningful action".
The report accused the energy companies of not only polluting the air but also "the information landscape" by replicating the cigarette makers' playbook of cherry-picking data, using fake experts and promoting conspiracy theories to attack a growing scientific consensus.
Many of the lawsuits draw on a raft of Exxon documents held at the University of Texas, and uncovered by the Columbia Journalism School and the Los Angeles Times in 2015.
Among them is a 1988 Exxon memo laying out a strategy to push for a "balanced scientific approach", which meant giving equal weight to hard evidence and climate change denialism. That move bore fruit in parts of the media into the 2000s as the oil industry repositioned global heating as theory, not fact, contributing to the most deep-rooted climate denialism in any developed country.
The company placed advertisements in major American newspapers to sow doubt. One in the New York Times in 2000, under the headline "Unsettled Science", compared climate data to changing weather forecasts. It claimed scientists were divided, when an overwhelming consensus already backed the evidence of a growing climate crisis, and said that the supposed doubts meant it was too soon to act.
Exxon's chairman and chief executive, Lee Raymond, told industry executives in 1996 that "scientific evidence remains inconclusive as to whether human activities affect global climate".
"It's a long and dangerous leap to conclude that we should, therefore, cut fossil fuel use," he said.
Documents show that his company's scientists were telling Exxon's management that the real danger lay in the failure to do exactly that.
In 2019, Martin Hoffert, a professor of physics at New York University, told a congressional hearing that as a consultant to Exxon on climate modelling in the 1980s, he worked on eight scientific papers for the company that showed fossil fuel burning was "increasingly having a perceptible influence on Earth's climate".
Hoffert said he "hoped that the work would help to persuade Exxon to invest in developing energy solutions the world needed". That was not the result.
"Exxon was publicly promoting views that its own scientists knew were wrong, and we knew that because we were the major group working on this. This was immoral and has greatly set back efforts to address climate change," said Hoffert.
"They deliberately created doubt when internal research confirmed how serious a threat it was. As a result, in my opinion, homes and livelihoods will likely be destroyed and lives lost."
Exxon worked alongside Chevron, Shell, BP and smaller oil firms to shift attention away from the growing climate crisis. They funded the industry's trade body, API, as it drew up a multimillion-dollar plan to ensure that "climate change becomes a non- issue" through disinformation. The plan said "victory will be achieved" when "recognition of uncertainties become part of the 'conventional wisdom'".
The fossil fuel industry also used its considerable resources to pour billions of dollars into political lobbying to block unfavourable laws and to fund front organisations with neutral and scientific-sounding names, such as the Global Climate Coalition (GCC). In 2001, the US state department told the GCC that President George W Bush rejected the Kyoto protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions "in part, based on input from you".
Exxon alone has funded more than 40 groups to deny climate science, including the George C Marshall Institute, which one lawsuit claims orchestrated a "sham petition" denying manmade global climate change. It was later denounced by the National Academy of Science as "a deliberate attempt to mislead scientists".
Drilling DownTo Sharon Eubanks the conspiracy to deny science sounded very familiar. From 2000, she led the US justice department's legal team against nine tobacco firms in one of the largest civil cases filed under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (Rico) Act, which was designed to combat organised crime.
In 2006, a federal judge found that the industry had spent decades committing a huge fraud on the American public by lying about the dangers of smoking and pushing cigarettes to young people.
Eubanks said that when she looked at the fossil fuel industry's strategy, she immediately recognised big tobacco's playbook.
"Big oil was engaged in exactly the same type of behaviour that the tobacco companies engaged in and were found liable for fraud on a massive scale," said Eubanks. "The cover-up, the denial of the problem, the funding of scientists to question the science. The same pattern. And some of the same lawyers represent both tobacco and big oil."
The danger for the fossil fuel industry is that the parallels do not end there.
The legal process is likely to oblige the oil conglomerates to turn over years of internal communications revealing what they knew about climate change, when and how they responded. Given what has already come out from Exxon, they are unlikely to help the industry's case.
Eubanks, who is now advising attorneys general and others suing the oil industry, said a turning point in her action against big tobacco came with the discovery of internal company memos in a state case in Minnesota. They included language that talked about recruiting young people as "replacement smokers" for those who died from cigarettes.
"I think the public was particularly stunned by some of the content of the documents and the talk about the need for bigger bags to take home all the money they were going to make from getting people to smoke," said Eubanks.
The exposure of the tobacco companies' internal communications shifted the public mood and the politics, helping to open the door to legislation to curb smoking that the industry had been successfully resisting for decades.
Farber, the Berkeley law professor, said the discovery process carries a similar danger for the oil companies because it is likely to expose yet more evidence that they set out to deceive. He said that will undercut any attempt by the energy giants to claim in court that they were ignorant of the damage they were causing.
Farber said it will also be difficult for the oil industry to resist the weight of US lawsuits, shareholder activism and shifting public and political opinion. "It might push them towards settlement or supporting legislation that releases some from liability in return for some major concessions such as a large tax to finance responses to climate change."
The alternative, said Farber, is to take their chance on judges and juries who may be increasingly inclined to take the climate crisis seriously.
"They may think this is an emergency that requires a response. That the oil companies should be held responsible for the harm they've caused and that could be very expensive," he said. "If they lose, it's catastrophic ultimately."
This story originally appeared in The Guardian and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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By Oliver Milman
Art Sullivan is considered something of a political heretic by other coal miners in south-western Pennsylvania, where a wave of support for Donald Trump based upon his flamboyant promises of a resurgence in coal helped propel the Republican to the U.S. presidency.
"Many of my coal miner friends voted for him," said Sullivan, who has spent 54 years as a coal miner and, more latterly, consultant to a struggling industry. "They were deceived. Trump had no plan, no concept of how to resurrect the coal industry. My friends were lied to."
Sullivan's friends may disagree with this assessment but the coal comeback promised by Trump in the 2016 election campaign has failed to materialize, with his first term studded with bankruptcies and closures of mines and coal-fired power plants.
There are now about 5,000 fewer miners than when Trump strode into the White House. The coronavirus pandemic has turbo-charged the decline – so far this year U.S. coal production has collapsed by more than 25% compared with the same period in 2019.
It has been a bruising few years rather than the glorious new dawn promised when Trump donned a miner's helmet, mimed digging coal and excoriated Barack Obama's "war on coal" on the campaign trail four years ago. One of Trump's first executive orders removed a ban on coal mining on federal land and dumped Obama's plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. "Come on, fellas," said Trump at the order's signing, where he was surrounded by beaming miners. "Basically, you know what this is? You know what it says, right? You're going back to work."
Such assurances were eagerly accepted by coal mining communities in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky who backed Trump and prepared for salvation. "When he came into office, it was like someone pulled their finger out of the dyke," said Thomas McLoughlin, a former mine inspector who trains new miners. "I was flooded with new mining students. It was overwhelming." McLoughlin said he would vote for the president again because Trump was the only candidate prepared to stand up for coal workers. "My business won't go under if he's re-elected," he added.
The Trump administration has set about weakening or scrapping a slew of environmental rules that bound the industry, such as requirements that new coal-fired power plants capture their carbon emissions and that coal firms do not release wastewater laced with dangerous pollutants, such as lead, selenium and arsenic, into rivers and streams.
Bob Murray, a major Trump donor and founder of the largest private coal company in the U.S., has boasted of an "action plan" he gave the administration to undo what he called "eight years of pure hell" under Obama. Much of Murray's three-and-a-half-page wishlist has been ticked off, including the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. A particular prize was a weakening of Obama-era standards to reduce mercury pollution from coal plants, a rollback undertaken after Andrew Wheeler, a former lobbyist for Murray Energy, became administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
"We are still feeling the effects of the damage from the Obama administration," said Jason Bostic, vice-president of the West Virginia Coal Association. "The social devastation in mining communities has been breathtaking. The support for Donald Trump is as strong if not stronger than in 2016. West Virginia is a Democratic state that has been dyed deep red because of the last administration."
But while Appalachia will largely stick with Trump in 2020, more coal capacity has been retired under Trump than during Obama's second term. "Coal's not back," as Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, glumly conceded last year. "Nobody saved the coal industry."
Coal production fell so sharply last year that renewable energy such as solar and wind overtook it in electricity generation for the first time since at least 1885, the year Mark Twain published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, America's first skyscraper was erected in Chicago and people were burning more wood than coal. Last year also saw Murray Energy file for bankruptcy, one of half a dozen coal companies to do so that year.
Cheap, abundant gas, retrieved via fracking, and the advance of renewables have been greater causes of coal's demise than any green regulation, experts say, rendering Trump's rollbacks simply environmentally destructive.
"The fall of coal is first and foremost a market story," said Daniel Kaffine, a University of Colorado economist who has researched the issue. "The days of coal supplying the majority of U.S. electricity production are not coming back." While metallurgical coal – needed for the making of steel – will hang on, the practice of burning thermal coal for energy is in "a death spiral," Kaffine said.
There are about 45,000 coal miners left in the U.S., half the number employed during Obama's first term. Plenty of political rhetoric surrounds a workforce that is actually quite small – there are double the number of flight attendants in the U.S. than coal miners, for example, and roughly the same number of chiropractors.
Whole communities sprang up around mining, however, meaning several dependent jobs are lost for each miner put out of work. The long decline of well-paying mining jobs, through machinery automation and now creeping obsolescence, has left deep scars in Appalachian towns now blighted by unemployment and opioid addiction.
"People drank Trump's Kool-Aid and he hasn't done it for them," said Blair Zimmerman, a former coal miner who is now commissioner of Greene county, Pennsylvania. "I'm very worried about the future because without mining, our tax base would go and we couldn't survive. People are leaving the area, it's tough. We should have looked at other options a long time ago."
Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, has outlined a $2tn plan to generate millions of jobs in renewable energy, potentially providing a new path for threatened coal workers. But coal mining has deep roots in communities that many are unwilling to relinquish. "It's a damned joke," said Bostic, of the West Virginia Coal Association. "It's an affront to a coal miner to say: 'We will take your job away for one that pays less well, and by the way, you have to pack your family up and move.'"
According to Sullivan, coal miners feel they have little choice. "The coal miner had no friends and was desperate," he said. "No one was speaking for us and then Trump was, so people backed him. Miners see him as their guy."
The externalities of coal reach far beyond mining communities, however. As the most carbon-intensive of fuels, coal is a key driver of the climate crisis, indirectly spurring the sorts of huge wildfires that have ravaged the U.S. west coast this year, as well as the continuing deterioration of the polar ice sheets that imperil coastal cities through sea level rise and storms.
Direct air pollution from the soot and chemicals given off by burned coal is also a major health burden. Not far from Sullivan and his friends, the Cheswick power plant, close to the banks of the Allegheny River, is close enough to people's homes that nearby residents have to wipe the coal soot from their houses. Five miles downstream towards Pittsburgh, in the suburb of Verona, Laura Jacko suspects emissions from the power plant could be behind her husband's asthma and the breathing problems suffered by her son, who was born prematurely.
"There is nothing more horrifying than holding down your small baby to shove a breathing machine into them," Jacko said. "It affects me personally and I get pretty angry about it."
Environmental groups have long pushed for the closure of Cheswick, which has previously been handed a civil penalty for breaching pollution limits. In Jacko's view, the era of coal needs to come to a managed but swift end. "My uncle was a coal worker and had black lung," a disease that develops from inhaling coal dust, she said. "I don't want their jobs to kill them. I want them to transition. These jobs are going away, it's just a matter of when. Pushing ahead with coal does everyone a disservice."
This story originally appeared in The Guardian and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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By Oliver Milman
The climate crisis is set to be a significant factor in a U.S. presidential election for the first time, with new polling showing a clear majority of American voters want decisive action to deal with the threats posed by global heating.
Seven in 10 voters support government action to address climate change, with three-quarters wanting the U.S. to generate all of its electricity from renewable sources such as solar and wind within 15 years.
Nearly two-thirds of respondents said they would be more likely to vote for a presidential candidate who supports the complete shift to clean energy, with a further seven in 10 voters supporting US involvement in the Paris climate agreement, which commits countries to tackling dangerous heating. Two-thirds of voters said climate should be a priority for whoever wins the election.
"There may be a divide on Capitol Hill but the large majority of us are worried about climate change and want to see leaders deal with it," said Ed Maibach, director of George Mason University's Center for Climate Change Communication. "This is the first election where climate change has featured heavily. It's unlike anything we've seen in American politics before."
Over the past decade, the crisis has become a sharply partisan political topic as Republicans embraced denial and obfuscation of the escalating crisis. Donald Trump called climate science a "hoax" and his administration set about dismantling every policy put in place by Barack Obama to reduce planet-heating emissions.
However, the new polling, on behalf of the Guardian, Vice Media Group and Covering Climate Now, by Climate Nexus, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, shows that the political landscape among voters appears to be shifting.
Do you support or oppose each of the following policies as part of the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic?
Democrats are becoming increasingly alarmed over the climate crisis, with 90% describing it as either a "very serious" or "somewhat serious" problem and more than eight in 10 supporting a Green New Deal, a vast government-led climate program, to combat it.
This concern is filtering through, to a lesser degree, to Republican voters. More than half say climate change is a very or somewhat serious problem, with 41% backing the Green New Deal, despite it being widely vilified by Republican party leaders. A further 51% of Republican voters support U.S. involvement in the Paris climate accords.
The polling suggests Trump, who has triggered the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement and routinely disparages climate science, will be the first U.S. president to face a voter backlash over the climate crisis. His Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, meanwhile, has vowed to reduce U.S. energy emissions to net zero by 2050 and promised a $2tn investment to create millions of new jobs in clean energy industries.
"Republican officeholders really do have to worry about this," said Maibach. "Young Republicans are becoming less accepting of the party line that climate change isn't real or isn't a serious problem. They don't want climate denial any more, moderate Republicans don't want climate denial any more and women voters largely don't want to support climate denialist candidates any more either."
The surge in voter appetite for climate action follows a barrage of disasters that have hit the U.S. recently, including huge wildfires that have scorched the west coast and powerful hurricanes that have pummeled the U.S. south. Scientists say rising global temperatures, caused by humans burning fossil fuels, are aiding the spread of wildfires and making hurricanes more intense.
Trump's first term in office has also seen a growing youth-led climate protest movement, with the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg as its figurehead. Younger U.S. voters see the climate crisis as a top-tier issue, polling has shown, while the latest opinion research shows broad support for a greater focus on the issue in the media.
More than six in 10 respondents said the media should explicitly outline the link between extreme weather events and the climate crisis, while nearly three-quarters want moderators to ask questions about the climate crisis during the three televised presidential debates, which start next week. In 2016, no questions were asked about climate during the debates between Trump and Hillary Clinton.
This story originally appeared in The Guardian and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
By Alexandra Villarreal
As West coast wildfires color the skies dystopian red and orange and an aggressive hurricane season batters the U.S. Gulf coast, college students are demanding their schools take bold action to address the climate crisis.
Caitlyn Daas is among them. The senior at Appalachian State University and organizer with the Appalachian Climate Action Collaborative (ClimACT) stands on the frontlines of her school's grassroots push to go "climate neutral," part of a years-long, national movement that has inspired hundreds of institutional commitments to reduce academia's carbon footprint.
Carbon neutrality commitments typically require schools to dramatically cut their carbon emissions by reimagining how they run their campuses — everything from the electricity they purchase to the air travel they fund. Colleges across the country, from the University of San Francisco to American University in Washington DC have already attained carbon neutrality. Other academic institutions, including the University of California system, have taken steps to fully divest from fossil fuels.
But as young activists like Daas urge their universities to do their part to avert climate disaster, many are frustrated by tepid responses from administrators whom they feel lack their same sense of urgency and drive. Appalachian State, part of the University of North Carolina system, has committed to reaching net-zero emissions decades down the line, but Daas and her fellow activists fear that's far too late. She's baffled that an institution devoted to higher learning is seemingly ignoring the science around the climate emergency.
"If our voices don't matter, can you please stop telling us that they do?" Daas says.
College activists concerned about the climate crisis have largely focused their efforts on two popular movements that go hand-in-hand: reaching carbon neutrality, and divesting university endowments. Broadly, the term "net carbon neutrality" means that a campus zeroes out all of its carbon emissions, says Timothy Carter, president of Second Nature, a nonprofit focused on climate action in higher education. This can be achieved through modifying campus operations, often with the help of alternatives, such as renewable energy certificates and voluntary carbon offsets (activities that atone for other emissions). In Second Nature's definition, investment holdings don't factor in a school's carbon footprint. Carbon neutrality often falls within a wider umbrella of climate neutrality, which also incorporates justice and other concerns.
Divestment campaigns, meanwhile, pressure universities to shed investments in fossil fuels in their endowments. "We cannot truly be climate neutral if we continue to invest in a fossil fuel industry," says Nadia Sheppard, chair of the Climate Reality Project campus corps chapter at North Carolina State University, where oil, gas and consumable, nonrenewable fuels account for around $43m in university investments.
Across North Carolina, the heated campus battles brewing over climate policy this fall represent a microcosm of the national conversation. The University of North Carolina system – which includes 16 universities and one gifted public residential high school – has set a 2050 goal to go carbon neutral, the same year as the state at large.
But students are frustrated by the distant deadline. "I do believe 2050 is realistic," says Isaiah Green, president of the UNC system-wide Association of Student Governments. "But it's so realistic that it's just not enough, in my opinion."
Laura England, a ClimACT member and senior lecturer in sustainable development at Appalachian State, approaches the issue with similar gravity as the undergraduates at her school. "That concept, 'our house is burning,' was a metaphor. But really in 2020, it is literal," she says.
Students and faculty at Appalachian State are angling for net zero emissions by 2025, or at least 2035, but have felt unheard. ClimACT lambasted the school's administration last week in a letter emancipating themselves from the official climate action planning process, at least until its leadership declares a climate emergency and responds accordingly. "The question we face is astonishingly simple," the group wrote. "Do we have the political will to chart a path toward a safe and just climate future, or will we continue careening toward hot house earth?"
Lee F Ball Jr, chief sustainability officer at Appalachian State, admires young people's passion and would "bottle" and "serve it" if he could. But to reach neutrality by 2025, the university would need to spend tens of millions of dollars it doesn't have.
"There's no real silver bullet of clean energy out there that we've been able to find, so we're in a wild west of carbon accounting and climate action," Ball says. "There's no rulebook, there's no prescription for this stuff."
Other students in the UNC system are advocating for more transparency and accountability around their school's investments.
Kelsey Hall, the leader of a divest campaign at UNC Asheville, successfully pushed the school administration to divest around 10% of its endowment from fossil fuels last year. But the other 90% remains in the hands of the UNC management company, which invests in a nebulous category of "energy and natural resources" – oil, natural gas, power, etc.
"Returns [on investments] are very, very close" between the competing portfolios so far, says John G Pierce, vice-chancellor for budget and finance at UNC Asheville. But university leadership isn't prepared to entertain divesting more of its endowment just yet.
"It's frustrating," Hall says. "But it's something that I've learned since becoming involved with the campaign, is just that, like, universities move slowly."
At Duke University, a top tier private institution in North Carolina, the administration has agreed to a much quicker 2024 climate neutrality date. There, students have been more concerned with how they arrive at that target.
They want the school to reduce actual emissions as much as possible, "rather than relying on more questionable, less rigorous ways of offsetting emissions in the books", says Claire Wang, a recent Duke alumna and Rhodes scholar.
"It'd be very easy for a huge polluter to, you know, only pick a low-hanging fruit, maybe bring emissions down 10%, and instead buy very cheap carbon credits for the remaining 90% and say they've reached carbon neutrality," Wang says.
Although student activists often direct their ire toward school administrations, their greatest antagonist may simply be a ticking clock. Undergraduates generally only get a four-year window on campus to make a difference, and they've lost precious time because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has in some ways pulled focus from climate issues.
Environmental campaigns, meanwhile, require long-term, dedicated attention spans. Gabriela Duncan, co-president of UNC Reinvest at UNC Chapel Hill, found article after article in her school paper about past divestment movements, and she knows that "there realistically is no way" that the university will divest during her academic career.
To avoid yet another loss of momentum, she's focusing on creating "a really strong foundation, so that we can have a sustainable movement for many years."
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By Oliver Milman
This story was originally published in The Guardian on July 27, 2020.
It was a balmy June day in 2017 when Donald Trump took to the lectern in the White House Rose Garden to announce the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, the only comprehensive global pact to tackle the spiraling crisis.
Todd Stern, who was the U.S.'s chief negotiator when the deal was sealed in Paris in 2015, forced himself to watch the speech.
"I found it sickening, it was mendacious from start to finish," said Stern. "I was furious … because here we have this really important thing and here's this joker who doesn't understand anything he's talking about. It was a fraud."
The terms of the accord mean no country can leave before November this year, so due to a quirk of timing, the U.S. will officially exit the Paris deal on 4 November – 100 days from now and just one day after the 2020 presidential election.
The completion of Stern's misery, and possibly any realistic hopes of averting disastrous climate change, rests heavily upon the outcome of the election, which will pit Trump against former vice-president Joe Biden, who has vowed to rejoin the climate agreement.
The lifetime of the Paris agreement, signed in a wave of optimism in 2015, has seen the five hottest years ever recorded on Earth, unprecedented wildfires torching towns from California to Australia, record heatwaves baking Europe and India and temperatures briefly bursting beyond 100F (38C) in the Arctic.
These sorts of impacts could be a mere appetizer, scientists warn, given they have been fueled by levels of global heating that are on track to triple, or worse, by the end of the century without drastic remedial action. The faltering global effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions and head off further calamity hinges, in significant part, on whether the U.S. decides to re-enter the fray.
"The choice of Biden or Trump in the White House is huge, not just for the U.S. but for the world generally to deal with climate change," said Stern. "If Biden wins, November 4 is a blip, like a bad dream is over. If Trump wins, he seals the deal. The U.S. becomes a non-player and the goals of Paris become very, very difficult. Without the U.S. in the long term, they certainly aren't realistic."
Nearly 200 countries put their name to the Paris accords, pledging to face down the climate emergency and limit the average global temperature rise to "well below" 2C above the era before mass industrialization started pumping huge volumes of planet-warming gases into the atmosphere from cars, trucks, power plants and farms. A more aspirational goal of halting temperatures at a 1.5C rise was also included although, just five years on, the planet is already creeping perilously close to this mark.
The Paris deal brought major, growing emitters like China and India on board with the quest to shift towards cleaner sources of energy, in part due to the urgings of Barack Obama, who claimed the agreement showed the U.S. was now a "global leader in the fight against climate change."
Trump, who once famously called climate science a "hoax," has never looked kindly on the deal, which he framed as an international effort to damage the U.S. while letting China off too lightly. In his Rose Garden speech, Trump remarked that he was elected to "represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris." In reality, each country is free to choose its own emissions cuts without any sort of enforcement. "Paris is like a vessel, such as a glass – you can pour water or wine into it," said Sue Biniaz, a former U.S. state department lawyer who drafted parts of the Paris deal. "It's not the design of Paris that's the problem, it's that there's not the political will to do enough."
Abandoned Climate Efforts
The U.S. government in practice abandoned any concern over the climate crisis some time ago, with the Trump administration so far rolling back more than 100 environmental protections, including an Obama-era plan to curb emissions from coal-fired power plants, limits on pollution emitted from cars and trucks and even energy efficiency standards for lightbulbs. In an often chaotic presidency, Trump's position on climate change has been unusually consistent – American fossil fuel production must be bolstered, restrictive climate regulations must be scrapped.
Unswayed by growing alarm among Americans over the climate crisis, Trump is taking this same message to the election. "Biden wants to massively re-regulate the energy economy, rejoin the Paris climate accord, which would kill our energy totally, you would have to close 25% of your businesses and kill oil and gas development," the president said this month, without citing evidence, as he announced another rollback, this time of environmental assessments of pipelines, highways and other infrastructure.
Despite all this, U.S. emissions have continued to fall, due in large part to the downfall of a coal industry that Trump has attempted to prop up. The international ramifications have been telling, however – in the absence of any sort of positive cajoling from the U.S., global emissions have remained stubbornly high and most countries are lagging behind their own promised actions.
According to the Climate Action Tracker, only Morocco is acting consistently with the Paris agreement's goals, with the global temperature rise set to exceed 3C by the end of the century even if the current pledges are met. Paris was meant to be only the beginning – countries are supposed to continually ratchet up their ambition levels until the more extreme ravages of climate change, such as dire flooding, heatwaves, crop failures and the loss of coral reefs, are avoided.
"There's been less political will from other countries to take action to a certain extent because the U.S. isn't pushing for it," said Biniaz. "During the first four years of Trump it's easier to say it's likely to be an aberration, a short-term deviation, but if it's eight years it's harder to keep together the coalition of countries that care about this."
‘Another Meteorite Is Coming’
Another four years of a Trump administration uninterested in the climate crisis could set back global emissions cuts by a decade, according to one published analysis, making the chances of meeting the goals of Paris near to impossible.
Hakon Saelen, an environmental economist at the University of Oslo who led the study, said the U.S. withdrawal is a "significant major blow" to the mitigation of the climate crisis. "The world cannot afford any delay if the 2C target is to be reached," he said. "Our model indicates that the chance of reaching it is very low already, but near zero with another Trump term."
But even with an engaged Biden administration that is somehow able to get Congress to agree to a $2tn plan to shift the U.S. on to renewable energy, the challenge is immense. The world has dithered on cutting emissions for so long that only an unprecedented, rapid overhaul of the way we travel, generate energy and eat will keep humanity within the bounds of safety outlined in Paris.The world will have to slash emissions by more than 7% a year this decade to have any hope of meeting the 1.5C target, according to the United Nations. This annual cut will be achievable this year only through the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic, which shuttered much of the global economy. A more sustainable path to decarbonization will need to be immediately identified and implemented.
"The warmer it gets the worse it gets and the [Paris] targets are broadly at a level where things will get really bad," said Zeke Hausfather, director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute. "We don't want people to give up hope, the human race won't become extinct at 2C but that's an unnecessarily high bar. There are still large threats and a lot of good reasons to keep warming below that.
Stern said American voters will naturally be "supersonic focused" on coronavirus and the economic fallout. "But climate change can't be forgotten this election," he said. "The Covid crisis has shown us countries can do remarkable things in short order when they believe they have to. It shows us we need leaders who also understand what we need to do on climate change, because that is another meteorite heading our way."
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By Nina Lakhani
Living near active oil and gas wells during pregnancy increases the risk of low-birthweight babies, especially in rural areas, according to the largest study of its kind.
Researchers analyzed the records of nearly 3 million births in California to women living within 6.2 miles (10km) of at least one oil or gas well between 2006 and 2015. It is the first such study to look at birth outcomes in rural and urban areas, and to women living near active and inactive oil and gas sites.
Proximity to a well and the level of production were found to be significantly associated with poor birth outcomes.
Specifically, the study found that in rural areas, pregnant women residing within a mile (1km) of the highest producing wells were 40% more likely to have babies with low birthweights and 20% more likely to have babies who were small for their gestational age compared with people living farther away from wells or near inactive wells only.
Even among full-term births, babies born to mothers living close to wells were on average 1.3 ounces (36 grams) smaller than those of their counterparts.
Newborns are deemed to have low birthweight when they weigh less than 5lb and 8oz. It can lead to multiple short-term development issues as small babies often struggle to eat, gain weight and fight infections. Studies also suggest small- and low-birthweight babies are more likely to have medical conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and intellectual and developmental disabilities in later life.
About one in 12 babies in the US have a low birthweight.
The study found a link between oil and gas wells and small babies born in urban areas, but it was significantly less marked than in rural communities. Differences in air quality, maternal occupation and housing conditions may have contributed to the urban-rural divide.
The findings, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, add to a growing body of evidence linking proximity to oil and gas wells to a variety of adverse birth outcomes, including premature birth, heart defects and low birthweight.
Nationwide, oil and gas production has risen significantly in recent years thanks to the expansion of non-conventional, hyper-polluting extraction techniques such as fracking. In 2011, during Barack Obama's first term in office, the US surpassed Russia as the world's largest natural gas producer, and in early 2018 it overtook Saudi Arabia as the leading producer of crude oil, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA).
Active and inactive oil and gas sites create myriad environmental hazards including air and water pollutants, noise and excessive lighting, which have all been linked with poor health outcomes.
"Results from health studies such as ours support recent efforts to increase buffers between active [oil and gas] well activities and where people live, go to school and play," said Rachel Morello-Frosch, a professor of public health and of environmental science, policy and management at the University of California, Berkeley, and senior author of the paper.
"This scientific evidence of adverse health effects facing vulnerable populations, including pregnant women, should be taken into account as Californians debate the extent to which we want to expand oil and gas drilling in our state."
Four of America's 10 largest oil fields are in California. However, oil production in California has declined over the past three decades, and generally the state has older, more conventional oil and gas sites than other parts of the US, and a larger number of inactive sites.
But many of the sites in California also use newer techniques such as fracking and steam and water injection to access hard-to-reach oil reserves, said the study's co-author Kathy Tran, a graduate student in environmental health sciences at UC Berkeley.
"Because researchers don't have direct access to the actual oil and gas sites, it's hard to get a good estimate of what people actually experience," said Tran. "The more in-depth exposure assessment we can get, the more we can really understand why we are seeing the [birth outcome] effects that we see."
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By Emily Holden
The Trump administration is diligently weakening US environment protections even amid a global pandemic, continuing its rollback as the November election approaches.
During the Covid-19 lockdown, US federal agencies have eased fuel-efficiency standards for new cars; frozen rules for soot air pollution; proposed to drop review requirements for liquefied natural gas terminals; continued to lease public property to oil and gas companies; sought to speed up permitting for offshore fish farms; and advanced a proposal on mercury pollution from power plants that could make it easier for the government to conclude regulations are too costly to justify their benefits.
The government has also relaxed reporting rules for polluters during the pandemic.
Trump's ambitions reach even to the moon, which he has announced he wants the US to mine.
Gina McCarthy, formerly Barack Obama's environment chief, now runs the Natural Resources Defense Council. She said the Trump administration was acting to cut public health protections while the American public is distracted by a public health crisis.
"People right now are hunkered down trying to put food on the table, take care of people who are sick, worry about educating their children at home," McCarthy said. "How many people are going to really be able to sit down and scrutinize these things in any way?"
McCarthy said the government was "literally not interested in the law or science," and that "is going to become strikingly clear as people look at how the administration is handling Covid-19."
The Trump administration is playing both offense and defense, rescinding and rewriting some rules and crafting others that would be time-consuming for a Democratic president to reverse.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has written what critics say will be a weak proposal for climate pollution from airplanes, a placeholder that will hinder stricter regulation.
Trump officials have been attempting to create a coronavirus relief program for oil and gas corporations, a new move in his campaign to back the industry and stymie global climate action. The president has sown distrust of climate science and vowed to exit the Paris climate agreement, which the US can do after the election.
Historians say Trump's presidency has forced a pendulum swing back from the environmental awakening of the 1960s and 70s, when there was bipartisan support for conservation. Protecting the environment – and particularly the climate – is an issue that has become embroiled in political ideology.
"What Trump's done is create a blitzkrieg against the environment … trying to dismantle not just Obama's environmental achievements but turn back the clock to a pre-Richard Nixon day," said Douglas Brinkley, a history professor at Rice University who is writing a book on the subject.
"It's just death by a thousand cuts. It's not one issue, it's just across the board."
The administration is under a tight deadline to secure changes before the election. A US law, the Congressional Review Act, allows lawmakers to more easily rescind regulations or rollbacks issued later in an election year.
"They're hitting a now or never timeline," said Christine Tezak, the managing director at the analysis firm ClearView Energy Partners. "There's a lot they want to get done before the election, just in case."
Some trends are working against Trump – including states advancing environmental goals, and low-cost renewable power and natural gas helping reduce the climate footprint of the electricity sector. Even Houston, an energy hub, has issued a climate action plan. Yet such contributions are not expected to be enough to fulfill America's role in stalling the global crisis.
Environmental advocates have challenged many of the Trump changes in court – and won. The Natural Resources Defense Council has sued 110 times and says it has prevailed in about 90% of lawsuits resolved.
Recently, judges tossed out a permit for the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline and decided the EPA cannot bar scientists who receive federal grants from serving as agency advisers.
Jeff Holmstead, a lawyer with the firm Bracewell who represents regulated industries and was a deputy EPA administrator under George W Bush, argued that many of the changes characterized as "rollbacks" are actually "sensible, reasonable regulatory reforms" or fixes to problems.
"It's impossible to understand the Trump administration's EPA unless you go back and look at the Obama administration," he said. "In many groups there was a sense that there really had been a great deal of regulatory overreach. And even if you disagree with that, the regulatory programs created problems that they didn't come back and fix."
‘This Is About Who We’re Protecting’
Trump's deregulatory agenda has addressed some issues industry would rather were left alone. The agency is changing the way it calculates the benefits of mercury controls for power plants. Companies had already complied with the rule and most didn't want it changed. But the revision is meant to set a precedent for the government to ignore some positive health outcomes of regulation.
Trump's weakened standards often go against science too, critics say.
Last month, for example, the EPA decided not to tighten rules for soot pollution, refuting rebutting guidance from experts that more stringent standards would save lives. The EPA has also repopulated advisory boards with representatives from industry and conservative states and is trying to change what science it can consider when developing health protections.
If a Democrat takes the White House, it will take years to reverse some changes. Moving faster would require Democrats holding both chambers of Congress. Even then, industry would fight hard.
Christopher Cook, the environment chief for Boston, said Trump's efforts had been "incongruous with all the actions that major cities are taking."
"The thing I would ask most Americans to consider when they're supporting stronger regulation is that this isn't about what we're protecting against, this is about who we're protecting," Cook said, noting that places with more pollution are faring worse under the coronavirus pandemic.
"Covid has been a dry run for the climate crisis. We've seen the populations that Covid affects because it attacks the respiratory system. We can't continue with bad air in America."
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By Oscar Schwartz
Microsoft drew widespread praise in January this year after Brad Smith, the company's president, announced their climate "moonshot."
While other corporate giants, such as Amazon and Walmart, were pledging to go carbon neutral, Microsoft vowed to go carbon negative by 2030, meaning they would be removing more carbon from the atmosphere than they produced.
By 2050, Smith added, the company was aiming to remove all of the carbon they had ever emitted since being founded in 1975.
Much of its plans lean on nascent technology. Critics, meanwhile, see the move as a gamble aimed at justifying Microsoft's ongoing deals with fossil fuel firms.
Microsoft releases less carbon a year than Amazon and Apple, but more than Google. The company has 150,000 employees across offices in more than 100 countries, and is still focused on developing the software and consumer electronics that made them a household name – Windows, PCs, Xbox. But after a temporary slump following their heyday in the 1990s, they have also once again become innovators, developing world-leading artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud computing products.
The company hopes to bring that innovative approach to its climate policies, in part by widening how it calculates its carbon footprint, beyond most corporate responsibility plans. Historically, Microsoft has only counted those emissions that fall within the scope of their own business operations – employee travel, company vehicles, heat and electricity in company buildings, and so on.
From now on, it plans to take responsibility for the emissions produced by its entire supply chain, including the full lifespan of the products it makes and the electricity that customers may consume when using its products.
Meanwhile, increasing the scrutiny on Microsoft's plan are its dealings with fossil fuel companies, which have been highlighted by some as evidence of hypocrisy as it makes climate pledges. In 2019 alone, the technology company had entered into long-term partnerships with three major oil companies, including ExxonMobil, that will be using Microsoft's technology to expand oil production by as much as 50,000 barrels a day over the coming years. The staggering amount of carbon this would release into the atmosphere would not be included on Microsoft's expanded carbon ledger.
For Microsoft, however, partnering with oil companies is not considered hypocritical. The company is hedging its climate bets on carbon capture and removal technologies that they believe will be able to offset some of the environmental harm caused by fossil fuels during the transition to a more sustainable future, despite such technologies being still in their nascent stages and not yet proven to work at scale.
Those who devised the plan at Microsoft argue that they are responding directly to a new reality: cutting emissions is not enough and all routes to non-catastrophic temperature increase will also require removing carbon from the atmosphere. So, as well as shifting to a 100% supply of renewable energy for all of their data centers, buildings and campuses by 2025, Microsoft outlines a number of carbon reduction methods it is backing to try and hit its bold targets.
To begin, Microsoft will focus on protecting forests and planting trees to capture carbon. This strategy has long been used to offset emissions, but Microsoft is hoping to improve their outcomes by using remote-sensing technology to accurately estimate the carbon storage potential of forests to ensure no major deforestation is occurring in their allotments. To achieve these goals, Microsoft will be partnering with Pachama, a Silicon Valley startup that will survey 60,000 hectares of rainforest in the Amazon, plus an additional 20,000 hectares across north-eastern states of the US for the company.
According to Kesley Perlman, a climate campaigner at the forest conservation NGO Fern, Microsoft's commitment to hi-tech reforestation is encouraging, but she stressed that conservation is a complex, multifaceted process that goes beyond technical issues. "It's not only about how much carbon a forest can hold but also who traditionally uses the forest, how they might be kept out, and how biodiversity will be prioritized," she said.
Biomass energy carbon capture storage
Microsoft will initially focus on nature-based solutions to reduce their carbon footprint over the next five or so years. But in order to start drawing more carbon from the atmosphere than they emit by 2030, it will need to shift to technology-based solutions that can scale up and accelerate carbon removal.
To this end, Microsoft is betting on biomass energy carbon capture storage, otherwise known as BECCS, to transform how energy is generated. Instead of burning coal, a BECCS power plant burns biomass, like wood chips. The carbon produced when burning the biomass is captured before it is released into the atmosphere and then injected at a very high pressure into rock formations deep underground. Not only does this remove carbon from the natural cycle, the biomass absorbs CO2 as it grows.
A world powered by biofuel, however, raises two looming questions. First, scientists are not yet certain if biomass energy will be carbon neutral.
The second concern is that the transition from coal to biofuel would require setting aside vast tracts of arable land – some estimates say one to two times the size of India. According to climate campaigner Perlman this would mean that the energy industry would probably have to compete with food production in a world where 10 billion people will need to be fed, while vastly enlarging industrialized plantations and reducing biodiversity. "We would likely see massive land use change and massive private purchases of land, the knock on impacts of which could be quite dangerous," she said.
Direct air capture
Perhaps the most futuristic of the technologies outlined in Microsoft's carbon negative plan is direct air capture (DAC). This involves machines that essentially function like highly efficient artificial trees, drawing existing carbon out of the air and transforming it into non-harmful carbon-based solids or gasses.
While the image of air-conditioner-like machines sucking carbon out of the air is captivating, capturing CO2 directly from the atmosphere requires a lot of energy and is very expensive. In 2011, extracting carbon from the air cost $600 a ton of CO2. In 2018, estimates brought this down to anywhere between $94 to $232 a ton. But given that Microsoft expects to emit 16m metric tons of carbon this year, if they were to reach carbon zero using only DAC, their bill might cost as much as $3.5bn.
According to Lucas Joppa, chief environmental officer at Microsoft, a large part of the reason why carbon removal remains so expensive is because the markets around these technologies are still immature. The company's strategy over the coming decades is maturing these markets through intensive and directed investment. "We're making a bet on certain technologies that don't exist at the scale or price point we need them to," he said. "But if we want to get them, we need to start investing."
The company, he said, already has a model for raising funds internally to support climate innovation. In July 2012, Microsoft became one of the first companies to institute an internal carbon price, charging different divisions in the business $15 a metric ton of carbon emitted. The funds raised were then used to pay for sustainability improvements, which helped the company achieve their goal of going carbon neutral.
Previously, this carbon price only extended over emissions Microsoft was directly responsible for. According to their new plan, in July this year Microsoft will extend this internal carbon price over emissions produced across direct and indirect emissions. The increased revenue raised from the expanded internal carbon tax, along with a $1bn climate innovation fund, will be used to invest in capture and removal technology. "What we're going to do is put this money in the market in a way that is highly additional," Joppa said. "This is how we're going to get nature-based solutions and tech solutions at a price point and scale we need."
Microsoft's plan for intensive investment in this industry is exciting for those working in the field. Klaus Lackner, a theoretical physicist working on DAC, has been arguing since the 1990s that carbon removal is the only feasible way to stop significant temperature rises. "We've shown that this method is technologically feasible, but nobody has wanted them," he said. "Microsoft have said 'we get it.' It will cost them money, but it will allow the technologies to come online and for the next company to follow their footsteps."
While the technologies that Microsoft are betting on are still in their nascent stages, in the past few years there has been some encouraging progress in the negative emissions industry. Lackner and Arizona State University recently signed a deal with Silicon Kingdom, an Irish-based company, to manufacture his carbon-suck machines. The plan is to install them on wind and solar farms, and then sell the captured carbon to beverage companies to make carbonated drinks. In the UK, Drax power plant, which was once among Europe's most polluting, transitioned from coal to biofuel this year.
But many attempts at scaling carbon negative projects have also failed. The Kemper Project in Mississippi, which was billed as America's flagship carbon capture project, was abandoned in 2017 – it was $5bn over budget, three years late and still not operational.
Given the not insignificant risk of failure, some propose that relying on nascent or future technology as a solution to the climate crisis represents a moral hazard – the promise of carbon removal functions as an incentive for governments and major polluters to not change their behavior now.
According to Chris Adams, a tech worker who organizes an online community of technology professionals agitating for climate action from within the industry, the fact that Microsoft is still partnering with big oil companies demonstrates the moral hazard in action. "They are protecting the fossil fuel industry from changing while the rest of the world will pay most from this gamble if it fails in the long term," he said.
Adams added that many of the encouraging ideas around carbon reduction in Microsoft's plan have come from internal organizing from concerned employees, but that this mostly goes unacknowledged in Microsoft's official vision. Emphasizing future technology while overlooking activism in the present, Adams said, represents a certain way of approaching problems that is typical of technology companies. "If you have spent the last 10 years amassing influence by approaching most problems with technology it's understandable you see all problems through this lens, particularly if you don't have to have conversations about power," he said.
When asked about this concern by the Guardian, Microsoft's Joppa responded that in the short term, the energy demands of a growing global population will probably still need a mix of renewable and traditional energy sources. By remaining in discourse with these industries, he said, Microsoft hopes to help them change and transition to a better model in the future. "It's extremely hard to lead if there's no one there to follow," he added.
As to whether the technology outlined in their plan will scale, he said there is inherent risk, but this is why they call it a "moonshot." "When it comes to our plan it's not like we've got it all figured out," he said. "We're just trying to do what the science says the whole world needs to do. There's really no other choice."
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By Michael Mann
After years studying the climate, my work has brought me to Sydney where I'm studying the linkages between climate change and extreme weather events.
Prior to beginning my sabbatical stay in Sydney, I took the opportunity this holiday season to vacation in Australia with my family. We went to see the Great Barrier Reef — one of the great wonders of this planet — while we still can. Subject to the twin assaults of warming-caused bleaching and ocean acidification, it will be gone in a matter of decades in the absence of a dramatic reduction in global carbon emissions.
We also travelled to the Blue Mountains, another of Australia's natural wonders, known for its lush temperate rainforests, majestic cliffs and rock formations and panoramic vistas that challenge any the world has to offer. It too is now threatened by climate change.
I witnessed this firsthand.
I did not see vast expanses of rainforest framed by distant blue-tinged mountain ranges. Instead I looked out into smoke-filled valleys, with only the faintest ghosts of distant ridges and peaks in the background. The iconic blue tint (which derives from a haze formed from "terpenes" emitted by the Eucalyptus trees that are so plentiful here) was replaced by a brown haze. The blue sky, too, had been replaced by that brown haze.
The locals, whom I found to be friendly and outgoing, would volunteer that they have never seen anything like this before. Some even uttered the words "climate change" without any prompting.
The songs of Peter Garrett and Midnight Oil I first enjoyed decades ago have taken on a whole new meaning for me now. They seem disturbingly prescient in light of what we are witnessing unfold in Australia.
The brown skies I observed in the Blue Mountains this week are a product of human-caused climate change. Take record heat, combine it with unprecedented drought in already dry regions and you get unprecedented bushfires like the ones engulfing the Blue Mountains and spreading across the continent. It's not complicated.
The smoke is so thick in Katoomba tourists are opting for photos with billboards, rather than the Three Sisters the… https://t.co/YbKl0daL8g— Tom Lowrey (@Tom Lowrey)1577677861.0
The warming of our planet — and the changes in climate associated with it — are due to the fossil fuels we're burning: oil, whether at midnight or any other hour of the day, natural gas, and the biggest culprit of all, coal. That's not complicated either.
When we mine for coal, like the controversial planned Adani coal mine, which would more than double Australia's coal-based carbon emissions, we are literally mining away at our blue skies. The Adani coal mine could rightly be renamed the Blue Sky mine.
In Australia, beds are burning. So are entire towns, irreplaceable forests and endangered and precious animal species such as the koala (arguably the world's only living plush toy) are perishing in massive numbers due to the unprecedented bushfires.
The continent of Australia is figuratively — and in some sense literally — on fire.
Yet the prime minister, Scott Morrison, appears remarkably indifferent to the climate emergency Australia is suffering through, having chosen to vacation in Hawaii as Australians are left to contend with unprecedented heat and bushfires.
Morrison has shown himself to be beholden to coal interests and his administration is considered to have conspired with a small number of petrostates to sabotage the recent UN climate conference in Madrid ("COP25"), seen as a last ditch effort to keep planetary warming below a level (1.5C) considered by many to constitute "dangerous" planetary warming.
But Australians need only wake up in the morning, turn on the television, read the newspaper or look out the window to see what is increasingly obvious to many — for Australia, dangerous climate change is already here. It's simply a matter of how much worse we're willing to allow it to get.
Australia is experiencing a climate emergency. It is literally burning. It needs leadership that is able to recognise that and act. And it needs voters to hold politicians accountable at the ballot box.
Australians must vote out fossil-fuelled politicians who have chosen to be part of the problem and vote in climate champions who are willing to solve it.
Michael E Mann is distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University. His most recent book, with Tom Toles, is The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy (Columbia University Press, 2016).
This article originally appeared in The Guardian and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalistic collaboration to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
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By Pam Radtke Russell in New Orleans
Local TV weather forecasters have become foot soldiers in the war against climate misinformation. Over the past decade, a growing number of meteorologists and weathercasters have begun addressing the climate crisis either as part of their weather forecasts, or in separate, independent news reports to help their viewers understand what is happening and why it is important.
And the reports are having an impact.
Studies by the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication show that in communities where local weather forecasters are reporting on the climate crisis, "public opinion is changing more rapidly", said Ed Maibach, director of the center and an author of the studies. "We showed a really strong impact – people who saw the climate reporting came to understand climate change was more personally relevant," he said.
The change has come as meteorologists and weather forecasters themselves have changed their opinions on the climate crisis and its causes. In 2008 a survey of some American Meteorological Society members found that only 24% of weathercasters agreed with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that warming was caused by humans. In 2010, a study by Maibach found that 54% agreed that global warming is happening. But by 2017 a full 90% agreed that climate crisis is happening, and 80% indicated it was human-caused.
"There's been an enormous shift," he said.
The change has been partially brought about by Climate Central's Climate Matters reporting program founded after Maibach released a study showing that the public has a high degree of trust with local forecasters.
"All TV weather forecasters are really good science communicators," Maibach says. Not only are they scientists, but they are trusted by their viewers because they don't generally report on politics or other controversial topics, he says.
Today, more than 600 TV weathercasters participate in the program, which provides training, scientific information, charts and videos for education and newsroom use.
Here's a snapshot of four of those local TV news forecasters.
‘You have the chance to shift the public view a little’
Keith Carson, WLBZ/WCSH, Maine
At the beginning of his career, Carson wasn't fully onboard with the idea that climate crisis was occurring and it was caused by humans. Carson began working in the field in 2006. Today, though, he says: "Frankly it's getting harder and harder to deny it scientifically." And now he knows how easy it is now for anyone to twist facts and create even more divisiveness.
These days, Carson regularly shares information about the climate crisis and other scientific topics with viewers through a nightly science segment called "Brain Drops".
For Carson, the issue is bigger than just climate change. "If people are going to dismiss science and the scientific process, it opens the door for other regressions," in scientific thinking.
Carson talks about climate change with his viewers about once every two weeks. "I think it's important to do, but not to hammer it daily. It's against human nature to change minds, and hammering it home daily would make some people dig in more." He approaches the topic like many of his colleagues do, by simply presenting the facts about what is happening.
Weathercasters, he says, have a unique opportunity because they are an integral, well liked part of the community, "and you have the chance to shift opinion a little".
While Carson does get some pushback from viewers, most of those who comment on his climate reporting are not his viewers, he says.
From stories on breweries to ranchers: find a way to relate
Elisa Raffa, of KOLR10/KOZL, Springfield, Missouri
Raffa, a self-described science geek, believes her job is to educate her viewers about how climate change will impact them. She's done stand-alone news segments about how climate change will impact fishing in local lakes, a local coffee shop and a local brewery. One piece detailed how ranchers must be more careful with their cattle as black vultures move into the region because of warming temperatures.
"It gets people to look at climate change outside of the political realm," she says.
Raffa is careful to ask objective questions about things such as precipitation and temperature, and rarely outwardly underscores climate change as the problem. Her sources usually do that themselves. That hits home with viewers who see climate change from a relatable perspective.
"Climate change will impact us in so many ways, and I love teaching my viewers and helping them learn how they can prepare and adapt and be more resilient," she said.
In addition to her special reports, Raffa talks about the climate crisis in subtle ways during her forecasts. She highlighted a recent uptick in morning high temperatures hoping to show her viewers that overnight temperatures are increasing.
"This is what I signed up for," she said. "This is a science issue. It's my duty to communicate this to the public. If I don't, who is going to?"
‘I used to be more subtle … but now we see more effects’
Jorge Torres, KOB-TV, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Over his career, Torres, chief meteorologist at KOB, has become bolder in addressing climate change. "In the beginning I was more subtle, but as more and more facts become apparent, I am more open now saying this is human induced. For me the biggest aspect is carbon dioxide," he says. "We are seeing that increasing globally and we are seeing the effects locally."
Earlier this year, Torres did an extensive news piece on the issue of water in New Mexico and how smaller snow pack will impact the state's water supply. Temperatures are getting warmer and warmer as well, he says, a fact that he points out during his daily forecasts.
"Whenever the weather story allows me to say," something about the climate crisis, he does, but he ensures it is in the proper context.
The bottom line is that he wants viewers to be open-minded about it. "Don't just hear something and dismiss it."
The forecaster quoting Bubba Gump
Heather Waldman, WGRZ, Buffalo, New York
As the trusted "station scientist", Waldman says that talking about the climate crisis is a natural fit for her and other weathercasters. "It fits in our identity."
Waldman and her station have unveiled a series of short, entertaining and informative videos called "the climate minute", that are online and are scheduled to run this week on TV.
Weather presenter Heather Waldman talks global heating in 'The Climate Minute' – video
The one-minute videos are time-consuming to produce because while Waldman uses information from Climate Matters, she also does her own research, reading IPCC and other reports.
She says she decided on short one-minute videos because she doesn't want to lose the audiences' attention.
"The audience isn't going to pay attention to anything for more than a couple of minutes and we use succinct, catchy images. The goal to find some sort of thing, where people say oh, this will have an impact – this is affecting me right now."
On an upcoming piece on how ocean acidification is affecting shrimp populations, she is using Bubba Gump shrimp quotes to keep it fun.
"Intrinsically we have the responsibility to present not just weather facts but climate facts – we don't want to pontificate, but we want to make them actionable and entertaining."
Pam Radtke Russell is a senior editor at Engineering News-Record, in New Orleans, and a specialist on climate adaptation.